Tag Archives: BiPolar disorder

Dues

28 Jan

Henk working

If you want to do something interesting in Life, you’ve got to pay your dues.

This is called experiential learning. I have huge respect for autodidacts (my Father), bodgers, make-do-and-menders, the makers of happy mistakes – in other words those humans with a pioneering spirit.

Too much formal education leads to closed minds in my experience.

Way back in January 2002 I went to see a specialist careers advisor-come-psychometric consultant in London seeking help for a new career direction.

I was asked to send in my curriculum vitae. At the appointment the first thing the consultant said to me was: “Looking at your resume I would say that there is a cyclical pattern occurring over about a three year period throughout your career. You seem to start a new job, be very productive for a while and then, sooner or later you torpedo everything and move on. I’d say you were probably manic depressive.”

I was a bit shocked to be honest.

“Funny you should say that” I said, ” but I have just been diagnosed with Manic Depression.”

I had recently been discharged from a Psychiatric Hospital with a prescription for Lithium carbonate, regular cognitive therapy and ….no bloody job. I was facing some hard decisions about how I was going to make a living. The psychiatrist had advised me that teaching (my erstwhile job) was the worst possible thing I could do – because of the particular pressures experienced by all the people in a school. A person with MD (Bipolar Disorder) is under constant emotional stress (because of the lack of an internal ‘governor’) and therefore finds it difficult to maintain psychological stability.

I had to accept teaching was off the menu.

“But I can’t do anything else!” I wailed to Clare, my wife, to which she responded:

“Don’t be so stupid, Henk! You can do anything you want with your brain you wally.”

 

Impressed by my wife’s pithy rebuke and the  insightfulness of the consultant I asked what job I might be suited to other than academia or teaching.

The careers consultant said “What do you really like?”

I rambled on about challenges, problem solving, team working, communicating and so on and so forth…

She said “This is not a job interview, what do you really like to do?” A tough question because I did not like anything about myself.

So I thought about it long and hard and said:

“I like being outside and I like making things with my hands”

“Well why don’t you think about environmental conservation? You’ll never make much money, but you will get a lot of job satisfaction. With your background knowledge of Natural History, your experience as a teacher and your woodworking skills you should fit right in”

So I did some research and found out that the only way to get into conservation work is by volunteering.

The way you pay your dues in Conservation is by giving your own time for no pay to learn the trade – it sorts out the committed from the merely curious. Since the majority of conservation jobs involve working with and managing enthusiastic volunteers you have to have been one to earn any credibility in this trade.

This made perfect sense to me, and after a little bit of searching I discovered a voluntary position with the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (now TCV – The Conservation Volunteers) in Wirksworth, Derbyshire as a Biodiversity Officer.

I flogged my motorbike – a beautiful Honda VFR –

Honda VFR800 98  2

to learn about billhooks, biodiversity action plans, tool talks, brewing tea with a storm kettle, endless hacking away at rhododendron bushes, how to drive a mini bus, tow a trailer… and in return was able to contribute my carpentry skills to making and hanging gates, wooden bridges, styles, steps and all manner of access barriers – all in the glorious Derbyshire Peak District with a lovely team of young volunteers – project officers and TCV staff. Outdoors, working with my hands.

Fresh air and friendship. The best head juice I know.

Very slowly it began to dawn on me that I could be happy perhaps for the first time in decades.

The door that was opened in my mind by this Zen-like slap to my forehead has led ultimately to me returning to my boyhood passion, via a joyful 10 years as a countryside Ranger. Believe what everyone says, it is the best paid job in the world.

It is remarkable to me that, through great good fortune I now find myself hosting an enthusiastic young carpenter/artist who is paying her dues to the traditions and practises of a road less travelled.

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Esme McCall, December 2017

“Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”   Robert Frost

 

 

 

Epiphany

15 Nov

Every moment is an epiphany for a 7 month old baby boy. Joseph has wears a hilarious frown when he is trying to absorb something new, like his grandfather’s goatee for example.

As an adult it is less common to enjoy such a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment – sensu stricto it means a complete and dramatic reversal, from an enemy to an advocate – as in the conversion of Saul of Tarsus in the New Testament.

I envy babies their credulity.

Many years ago I had my own epiphany in relation to my mental health. My dear wife, Clare, after months of trauma, had been forced to call a Doctor to have me sectioned. She tells me it was the hardest thing she has ever had to do.

In the late summer of 2001 I had been acting very oddly for months. I had not been sleeping, I was delusional – living through a protracted manic episode which ended, finally, in full blown psychosis.

To put it into context, when the Doctors and Social Workers arrived at our home I was wandering about the garden, butt naked trying to deduce the square root of pi from the proportions of the hat band of my Borsalino Fedora.

I was, not to put too fine a point on it, bonkers.

Two years prior to this Clare had gone through another awful period caring for me after I had made a suicide attempt, and, when I finally admitted it, she could not risk leaving me alone for a single second.

Imagine the pressure on her, the immense responsibility of worrying all the time that if she let me out of her sight for a second, I would be lost for ever. The knowledge that if I succeeded in extinguishing myself, she would feel completely responsible.

Mental illness is that cruel – the anguish suffered by the patient is multiplied exponentially in the carer of the loved one.

My own moment of great and profound revelation did not occur until I was in the psychiatric wing of Chesterfield Hospital in 2001.

I had decided to appeal my section under The Mental Health Act 1983 – thus, a social worker came to see me to discuss my case. In context, and to quote a conversation between Dr Ravi Lingam, my first psychiatrist and Clare at the time of my admission:

Dr. Lingam “What is Henk’s worst trait?”

Clare “He doesn’t listen.”

Dr Lingam “Why should he listen when he thinks he knows it all?”

Back in the Hospital the Social Worker said to me:

“Henk, if you are successful in your appeal you can walk out of here and continue to behave like a complete pain in the neck and suffer the consequences. If you are not successful then we can keep you here indefinitely. What you have to consider is, what right have you to continue subjecting Clare, who loves you, to your mental illness and to make her suffer?”

It was this last question that gave me my epiphany.

What right have I to make the one who loves me suffer?

I withdrew my appeal and was immediately taken off the section. I stayed in hospital voluntarily  for 5 weeks and received a clear diagnosis of Manic Depression – or BiPolar Disorder – from a straight talking Psychiatrist, Dr Zaman.

I became in that instant my own advocate and no longer my own (or my loved one’s) enemy.

 

 

 

 

Tapas

18 Dec

Tapas – Calamares, bocquerrones and Croquettas with a side order of ice cold beer: shared, bite sized and tasty – that’s how life should be.

I would never have eaten these had it not been for one, very particular human being who intervened just in time.

A few years ago I was asked to attend a series of therapeutic workshops for people who had just been diagnosed with BiPolar Disorder. The idea was to introduce these poor beknighted sods to a fellow sufferer who had lived with the diagnosis for a long time. That would be me.

The Community Practitioner Nurse (CPN) who organised the programme invited me to a NHS Mental Health facility in Sheffield to meet a group of new BP clients. He was not there on the day.

I felt like Ernest Borgnine on The Poseidon Adventure. A survivor with limited knowledge asked to lead a group of fellow passengers into the light.

We had nothing in common, except for a similar diagnosis. A young mental health worker introduced me (and the fact I was self employed), and said I would answer the questions I felt able to.

People in the group asked me about how I coped with Lithium (my meds), how I held down a job and then gone on to run a small business, whether I had ‘episodes’ and so on. I answered these as openly and honestly as I could and was feeling ok at that point. The group seemed interested.

The mental health worker then asked “How do you cope with suicidal thoughts?”

“You can’t” I responded “By the time you are that depressed you are no longer functional. Someone else must intervene, or you’re going to be dead.”

I wrote to this individual’s line manager. I was so pissed off at her clumsy intervention. It had plunged me into a depressive state almost immediately and poured cold water over the session.

Fortunately for me I have a strategy in these situations.


When entering a dark, depressive tunnel against my will I imagine a small figure up ahead saying “Hurry up for fuck’s sake I’m scared!”

I find this emboldens me to push forward, not go back. The ‘hurrying up’ is the key, for physical activity leads me to a lighter state – The Light – so to speak.


And there at the end, instead of the grey and black of fear, it is the colour, taste and smell of choice. Tapas and a beer with my pal. Clare, the woman who intervened.


So if you are feeling blue, come into the hole with me and push on through to the light. I’ll be waiting with a beer and a plate of tapas with bits of shell in my beard.


Believe me, dear reader, life is so worth living.

Merry Christmas

X

H

Lift

7 Feb

Henk and Polly

(Henk and Polly 1986)

Old memories float back like model aeroplanes, flown in friendship years ago.  At the core of good therapeutic practice lies the skill of Listening. When I came out of the psychiatric hospital I had to learn to do this. I have concluded that ‘listening’ is one of the 3 ‘L’s’ of good mental health in my case; the other ‘L’s” of the trinity are Love and Lithium. They ring-fence the hell of manic depression.

One cannot ignore this diagnosis, nor be complacent, because it brings out the ‘feral‘ in me and the ‘fear‘ in you.

It takes real bottle to stand up to my kind of crazy, and calm the wild beast. My wife has it – she picked up the shards and helped me glue them back together with love. My shrink had it, he helped me with honesty, respite and Priadel – “It may screw up your thyroid, your kidneys and your liver and make you feel nauseous, take away some of your talents even, but you will be able to function in polite society” – Lithium. Three L’s for liberation from the black dog of suicidal despair to the vaulting madness of hypomania and hubris…. in one day, every day.

Speaking of bottle, I met Musaid Iqbal, when I was a postdoctoral research assistant in the Zoology Department of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. He was completing his Ph.D. on the ecology of the Cheer Pheasant (Catreus wallichii).

“I was hiking with my college mates in the Himalayas crossing the Pir Panjal range at about 17,000 feet (which separates the Valley of Kashmir from the Indian Plains). We were not carrying any maps – or food – and were going by whatever the occasional shepherd that we ran into would tell us or feed us. We ended falling down a scree slope which  in its brush had red bee nests. The bees attacked  some of us as we were trying to latch on to anything that we could grab going down! Luckily, the slope ended on a slight embankment which was helpful, but the steepness of the mountainsides above and below dictated that we had to cross the very cold and icy mountain stream that had very slippery, algae-covered boulders strewn about in its bed. I think I finally crossed it after many half attempts and falls and losing hold of the make-shift rope made out of ruck-sack straps. The clapping and exhortations from my mates were the only things that kept me going.”
Musaid revealed that he was not confident in water as a result of this incident in one of our common room chats in the Zoology Department at the University of Newcastle-u-Tyne.
I persuaded him that I thought I could help him to overcome his hydrophobia, as I had done with my daughter, Polly in our local swimming pool in Jesmond.

My friend and I would sit in the shallow end of the pool and chat. He gradually got used to the noise, the smell of chlorine and the splashing, and he felt ok because the bottom, the side rail and his friend were never far away. In his own time I got him to wet his face as if washing, and eventually I gave him a pair of swimming goggles. When he got used to the feel of these we progressed to full face immersion, and then to lifting his feet of the bottom of the pool and …floating!

After that, swimming was just a matter of flapping the sticky out bits, because he realised he was in control of the element that had nearly killed him all those years ago, and not at its mercy.

I received an email from Musaid after my mother passed away. In my grief he had thrown a rope made from his rucksack straps of memory into the icy torrent of my unbidden emotions. He had listened all those years ago.

“I found time today to visit your blog, and read the sad news about your mother’s death. I am sorry to learn about her passing away, but I was instantly reminded of bits of conversations I had with you whilst in Newcastle – going to the pool, or in the tea room in Ridley Building, or at other times – in a few of which you mentioned your mother. I remember you told me that when you demanded a toy once, she challenged you to build your own, and I also remember what she told you about what your money would be used for if you bought stuff at Marks and Spencers!”

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The toy I had demanded was a ‘Johnny Seven‘ rifle. The ‘must have multi-functional toy rifle 1964 that every other boy in Wolds Rise, Matlock and the UK in general, seemed to me to possess (in the days when the Vietnam War was in the news these toys and war games in general were a preoccupation with boys). My mam could not afford much in those days as a single parent. She just said “Here, make your own!” handing me some Balsa wood. Genius.

Balsa wood grows in South America. Ochroma pyramidal is fast growing and consequently very light (like our willow) and, yet immensely strong. The timber can be cross cut with a sharp knife with great accuracy and is the favoured material of aero modellers everywhere, it is also spectacularly easy to make boats with it as it floats as well as cork.

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I believe my mother was given the Balsa wood by a family friend and neighbour – Mike Green pictured above in 1955 with his own design ‘Heatwave’ – a one-time world champion balsa wood maestro and legendary aero-modeller of the 1950’s and beyond. He also had a wickedly funny and mordant sense of humour.

Thanks to my mother’s wisdom, an new model maker and woodworker was created, the third world war was averted and Marks and Spencer impoverished!

Thanks to Musaid’s friendship my spirit has been given Lift, like the scores of aeroplanes I built in my youth. Perhaps all kids should be given Balsa, then fewer guns and more aeroplanes would be made so that they could understand lift(sic) and not death.

Odin

2 Jan

There is a price to be paid for wisdom as Odin the chief the Aesir – the Norse Gods of myth discovered, when he went in search of Mimir’s well beneath the world tree Ysgadril. Upon drinking deeply from the well of knowledge Odin plucked out his right eye and gave it to Mimir, the well’s keeper, for the gift of foresight.

The Vikings

I was born in 1958, the year in which “The Vikings” starring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtiss was released. When I was little, my dad used to drive my mum nuts by shouting “ODIN!!!” at the top of his lungs whilst in the bath holding a scrubbing bush aloft in lieu of a sword. I’m guessing he identified with Einar the character played by Kirk Douglas, son of Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine) and not Erik (Einar’s half brother sired by Ragnar) played by Tony Curtiss – who, whilst very good looking was not as butch as Einar. I like to think of my dad as a Viking – he certainly had the strength in his day and is, with 5 children to his name our ‘All Father’.

Si and Dad, Yosemite

Here he is in Yosemite with Simon, the youngest of the son’s of Littlewood. He, like me is a carpenter and he plies his considerable skill in San Francisco.

Wisdom flows from insight. In my case, insight is the knowledge that I have a disorder which renders me ‘blind’ to people’s motives (see Two Towers). I am emotionally more labile than most and I am given to an empathic response to the emotional state of others –  especially when they are in need.

There is a word for this: Eideteker – from the word ‘eidetic’ (used in conjunction with memory to describe an ability to recall something in great detail) – it can refer to a person who can ‘see through the eyes of another’. It was famously used by Hannibal Lecter to describe the skills of the homicide investigator Will Graham in the 2002 film ‘Red Dragon’. It is a curse.

Given that most people follow their own agenda, I will empathise by default and often offer (unbidden) assistance. Favours, money, well meant advice, a well tuned ear, intuition …. This behaviour can be taken as interference, or more commonly, generosity of spirit. People I know think it is a good thing that I am this way – they see it as a ‘generous nature’.

I find it bloody exhausting – because it is like having no skin.

As a secondary school teacher I was considered gifted, partly because I had been a professional scientist before teaching the subject (I had real experience of making new science). In the main I think it was because I had no ‘off switch’ to the needs of students. I was promoted to Head of Year within twelve months of qualifying, becoming responsible for the pastoral welfare of over 200 hormonal teenagers. I counselled many youngsters, some I helped, all made deep impressions on me, through their emotional and educational need.

I was advised by my Psychiatrist to give up teaching after I came out of hospital back in 2002, and by a very helpful careers adviser. So I don’t teach now, apart from the occasional carving or cabinet making tutorial in my studio to help pay the rent.

Making furniture for a living is a solitary exercise, and this is therapeutic for me. I like it when my fellow artists sometimes wander down my dusty corridor for a chat, giving me the chance to procrastinate. But sooner or later I crave the peace and quiet of the workshop. Chisels, planes, set squares and marking gauges make no emotional demands, wood sings a quiet song best heard in isolation.

The price I paid for my insight was to give up teaching. Having already given up academia I felt the loss intensely. The loss of an eye is a terrible thing, the loss of a career, twice, could be seen as carelessness (Lady Bracknell). But I am lighter now in spirit and closer to the old gods and so I shout in my studio, axe aloft to the All Father, the protector of warriors and wisdom:

“ODIN!!”

 

Manus

1 May

Manus is the zoological term for the distal portion of the forelimb of an animal. I’m a zoologist, I trained at Manchester University between 1976 and 1979 and stayed on to study centipede leg glands for a further three years. My wife asked me once “What does Ph.D. stand for?” to which I replied “Piled high and Deep”. I continued to pile it high and deep for another twelve years as a postdoctoral researcher, which is a posh word for a ‘drone’ or ‘lab monkey’. Until I finally had had enough and became a school teacher. I had much more fun teaching science to secondary school students and rugby to reprobates.

Until I became ill. Years of very black moods interspersed with periods of intense creativity and manic energy caught up with me and I had a spectacular break down. It has taken me years to calm the Tsunami of emotions and the resulting fall out to regain a confident lucidity I have not felt since I was a boy. Eventually I was diagnosed by a very competent psychiatrist, having seen a rubbish shrink for several years prior who did not help one bit. In fact I suspect the antidepressants that were prescribed for ‘chronic depression’ were partly instrumental in bouncing me in to a full blown psychotic episode.

But this piece is not about manic depression (a much more descriptive and robust term than the trendy BiPolar Type 2 I am labelled with). It’s no longer fashionable anyway, not since Catherine Zeta Jones and Stephen Fry made it cool. It is not cool. In zoological terms it is an annoying trait I may have inherited. This piece is about sanity.

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I free carved this bowl from a lump of Australian gum tree using a mallet and a series of chisels. It took me about two days of continuous tapping away at the chisel handle with my mallet to hollow out the bowl. The concentration required and the repetitive nature of the exercise was rather like zen meditation and it left me in a state of bliss. 

I have made plenty of rubbish bowls and lousy carvings in my time, but I still achieved that state of mindful bliss every time I carved. My mind is calmed by this kind of exercise.

I believe that when the connection between the mind and manual work is at its strongest, for example during craft or art work that we move away from mental instability and achieve the centre ground.

The key moment in human evolution was when our ancestors became bipedal freeing not only the forelimbs, but large areas of the cortex for communication. We used to make tools, hunt and gather – now we sit at computer screens and tap keys. We pile it high and deep. Branch out a little and make something, after all a busy manus is the foundation of compos mentis.